Tips for Winter Photography in New England
By David Long
Living in New England, I am blessed with ample opportunities to shoot my favorite landscapes in all four seasons. Winter is my second favorite mainly because of its juxtaposition with the other three, where the scenes overflow with color. Winter, instead, has a stark, minimalist look that provides an entirely different opportunity in landscape photography.
In winter, the point of interest in any image becomes much more important. Foreground and background elements that typically play a big role in your composition change radically or even disappear into a blank white canvas. The upside is that many views that are obscured in the other three seasons now present themselves. In this blog, I don’t try to cover all the equipment, clothing, and preparation needed for long hikes to do winter photography; instead I present my view of the important points for those who want to do winter photography without suffering too much of the downside of winter weather.
Familiar landscapes can look totally different in winter when the trees are bare, the grass is covered, the light is coming from different angles, and the sky is taking on different tones. That is what makes it so interesting.
I love winter photography and my work is mainly short hikes in conditions that are not too cold or windy. I look for days that are around freezing temperatures with little or no wind. Not only is this more comfortable weather, but I find this improves the photography as well. The snow is usually wetter and clings better to the structures and trees and any lakes and ponds are usually smooth if they have not frozen over yet.
I use the same gear for winter landscapes as I do for any other season. Some tips on how to handle the gear a little differently:
Keep Your Camera Gear Cold - I put my gear in the trunk or back of the car to keep it closer to the outside temperature to prevent fogging the mirror and the lens when brought outside.
Keep Your Batteries Warm - Batteries drain faster in colder temperatures so keep them in a pocket or inside your coat, closer to your body heat, until they are needed.
Pack Your Bag For Accessibility - Decrease the exposure of your gear to the elements and increase you ability to find what you need with the snow flying by arranging your bag in advance.
Lens Hoods and Umbrellas - Carry your lens with the hoods already mounted and carry an umbrella to shield the camera from falling snow.
Microfiber Wipes - Carry plenty of them and use them often to wipe of your lens.
Warm Up Your Camera Slowly - To prevent condensation on all of your equipment, place your gear back into your bag, close it up before bringing it in, and allow it to sit for a while before opening it.
I don’t do many things differently in winter, but there are a several keys things that I would recommend doing to get the best RAW files to take into post-processing:
Because your camera is set to read 18% gray, I will usually set my EV (exposure variable) to 1-1/2 to 2 stops overexposed to push my histogram as much to the right as possible.
Pay special attention to your shutter speed depending on what you are trying to achieve:
If you want crisp snowflakes, look to shoot at 1/250 sec. or higher to freeze the snow.
If you don’t want to see the snowflakes, but more of a snowy haze, set you shutter speed at 1 sec or slower so that the individual snowflakes do not appear as foggy streaks.
If there is wind, try to position yourself to shoot a cross wind to give the streaking snow a sense of movement.
Shoot with a smaller aperture than normal so that any random snowflakes closer to the lens are in focus.
Use your histogram versus the image on the LCD to review your images. Histograms are really the key to effectively getting the correct exposure in snowy scenes. Continue to shoot the scene until the majority of the histogram is on the right half of the graph without touching the right edge.
When shooting in winter, pay attention to the following:
Most of the “natural” framing may be gone in winter, especially foliage on trees so pay close attention to your point of interest and how branches or ground cover impact the scene.
Wet snow will stick to most everything giving you an entirely different look and one that may create a reason to include more of the surrounding trees and bushes than normal.
Winter can create a very barren or desolate look that can turn an every day scene into a compelling shot. Be careful not to leave footprints where your don’t want them.
Color or Black & White?
There’s often little to be gained by snow pictures in color. On the other hand…
Something red in a snow scene is gorgeous, too.
Here are several suggestions that I follow in processing my winter images:
I always calibrate my monitor using the Datacolor Spyder X
If the majority of my histogram is not on the right side, I will push the exposure up to a half-stop to get it there.
I push the “blacks” slider a little deeper than normal to accentuate the dark areas against the white background.
I use the clarity and dehaze sliders in Lightroom to achieve the level I like in the haziness of the snow and how crisp the background elements stand out.
I use the masking features in the brush and pull down filter to add emphasis to the sky or surrounding vegetation.
I like my snow “white” so I desaturate the blue out of it in the HSL panel
I add saturation selectively to buildings, trees and brush using the HSL panel
I use Content-Aware-Fill in Photoshop to clean up telephone poles and wires, objectionable foreground elements and unruly snowflakes that are streaking or blobbing the image.
David is an instructor with BlueHour and teaches many workshops with us throughout the year. He enjoys teaching all over New England, including Cape Cod, Vermont and New Hampshire. You can find out more about his workshops on our workshop page here, and you can visit his website to preview more of his work.